Exclusive Look: The Hunt

Wicked Games

Her face felt cold. Wet. Not unfamiliar, given her line of work, but this, this was different. It was a sharp cold, cutting, sending jagged little shots into her head, into her bones. She felt groggy, not like a couple of beers and a couple of smokes groggy but more like ‘Did you get the number of the truck that hit me?’ groggy. There was a weird metallic taste in her mouth. Weird tastes, also part of the job, but this wasn’t the usual salty bitterness. It was blood. Why could she taste blood? What the hell happened last night?

There was really only one way to tell. She had to open her eyes. Or at least the one that wasn’t pressed up against the wet, cold whatever it was she was lying on.

She didn’t open them. Not yet. First, she listened.

You didn’t survive in this bitch of a world by being careless. If there was somebody nearby, somebody watching and waiting for her to stir so that whatever the hell happened last night could happen again even harder, then she didn’t want to tip them off that she knew what was going on around her until the last possible second.

So, she lay very still and kept on breathing as smoothly as she could, and she listened. There was a dripping sound, water falling onto something soft. That went with whatever was making her face wet. Snow, obviously snow. She could feel the almost electric tingles as she exhaled and the tiny flakes drifted up to melt on her face. Snow meant outside. Outside meant witnesses. She was already safer than she’d thought.

Outside also meant that it was possible, if not likely, that nothing too horrible had happened last night. Maybe she just got into a fight or had too much to drink. Maybe the sinister whisper in the back of her head telling her that she was really screwed was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been wrong about something. Not the first time that she’d let her better judgement get clouded and convinced herself that a situation was worse than it was. No actually, it would be the first time. Usually, if she was misjudging, it was in the other direction and she ended up with stitches, a jail sentence, or a loan taken out in her name by some dude that she could barely even remember. Underestimating the danger had always been her problem, so she reminded herself not to do it this time. She would keep her eyes shut, breathe steady, and listen.

Drip drop of melting snow, pattering down all around. Not in town then, where it would all be running along lines around her, but somewhere outside where the forests still grew thick and dense. She had to suppress a shudder. Not from the cold, but from the realisation. There were bears out here. Wolves too. This was Alaska, and if you went for a happy little hike in these woods, you took a rifle with you or you didn’t come back. And here she was in her going-out-for-the-night clothes, not even a proper jacket or scarf. She was beyond screwed, even if there was nothing bad going on. And there was definitely something bad going on because otherwise, she’d be able to remember how the hell she got here.

Her head throbbed. The cold of the snow had actually been helping to numb it before, but now that she was paying attention, it didn’t feel like a hangover or a fistfight. It felt like somebody had clubbed her over the back of the head. Oh goddamnit, had some stupid construction worker donkey-punched her, thought she was dead, and dumped her out here? If he had, she wouldn’t have been paid. She’d have to track the prick, and shake him down, then threaten to go to the cops. What a pain in the ass.

Still, she didn’t move. If it was some jackass pulling the old donkey punch and he was still out there, he might not take kindly to her waking up again. People were funny like that. They got themselves all worked up and convinced that the only way out was to keep on killing once they thought they’d done it before. If she suddenly wasn’t dead, that didn’t mean he’d pull his head out of his ass long enough to realise that she wasn’t exactly in a position to be pressing charges.

So, whether it was a donkey punch, a bar fight, or whatever it was that left her out here in the snow with blood in her mouth and an ache in her head like someone had taken to her with a two-by-four, all that mattered now was surviving the next five minutes. Just five minutes. Anyone could survive five minutes. People survived five minutes all day, every day.

She kept her eyes shut, and her ears open. There was nobody else out here. If there was, she’d hear them moving around in the snow. If they weren’t moving around, she’d hear them breathing. No question. It was dead silence out in the woods, nothing but the patter of water and the creak of the wood. If somebody was out here, she’d know it.

Even so, she went on playing possum. If she was right about there being nobody around, then she’d spend an extra few minutes lying in the snow that she didn’t need to. But if she was wrong, wasting a few more minutes lying still was the least of her worries.

Listening as hard as she could with her head still throbbing, she searched for any tiny hint as to where she might be, and what might be going on. Those damned drips just kept on going, distracting her every time that she thought she might have been hearing something else. Cars going by, the seaplanes coming down, anything that could help her pinpoint where the hell she was. Then just as she was losing her cool, she heard it, soft as a whisper. The running of a river gurgling along, swollen with the snowmelt.

Where the hell was there a river near town?

She knew her way around Anchorage pretty well for somebody who hadn’t grown up there. She knew all the alleyways that got quiet in the early morning hours where you wouldn’t have to run the risk of a run-in with the motel owners. She knew all the little shortcuts that could take her from one side of town to the other in a hurry if somebody was looking for her that she didn’t think ought to be.

But at the edge of town, her geographical knowledge took a nosedive. She didn’t go out there. Nobody with any sense went out there. Beyond the cold comforts of town, this place was like the Wild West and the third circle of hell all mixed up together, so cold your eyes could freeze shut and you wouldn’t even be able to see the grizzly monster creeping up on you. Law and order ended with the tarmac. In the woods, the law of the wild reigned supreme. Kill or be killed.

Well not really, there were plenty of folks who came out here to hunt or for work. Some even came for fun if they were crazy enough, and most of them made it home with a tall tale of some Mexican stand-off between them and the wildlife or Mother Nature herself. Then there were the wannabe tough guys –  they accounted for most of her clientele. They’d tell her all about how brave they had to be just to stroll out to the pipeline and clock in for their day. From her experience, the real tough guys didn’t need to brag and didn’t feel the need to impress anybody. They were the ones that you had to keep a proper eye on if you wanted to make it out alive. The quiet ones.

Some spark of recognition stirred in her. Last night there had been a quiet one. Not one of the rough and ready survivalist types that she usually saw. A normal-looking guy, like you might find in any other state. He’d been quiet, yeah, but she’d figured he was just bashful. Not used to spending his hard-earned cash on a hot, tight body. He’d get used to it though, they all did. They all came back for more after the first time – she gave them a night to remember.

But she still couldn’t remember what had happened afterwards. There had been a titty bar with strippers up on the stage and her Mr Bashful propping up against the bar, hardly even looking their way. Given the lack of interest he was so deliberately showing to the girls who were up there shimmying for their lives, she wondered if he was brought up righteous or if he was queer. Usually, she wouldn’t have even bothered approaching a guy like that. Better to wait until all the dancers had gotten him worked up and willing to part from cash, and then swoop in. That was the smart play when you were looking for work in a place like that.

But there had been something about him, something about the set of his shoulders or the bolt-uprightness of his back, that told her a different story from what he was trying to tell. He might have been playing it ice-cool, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t all wound up inside. She’d have guessed that a guy like that, who couldn’t even let it show when a girl had him hot and pent up, was liable to go off like a volcano at the slightest provocation. That’d make her life a lot easier. The sooner he popped, the sooner she could move on to the next guy.

She’d slung herself onto the stool beside him and given him the patented batting of the eyelashes and in short order, the transaction was made. Cash passed hand to hand, in advance, with no resistance, to her absolute surprise. They’d headed out from the gentleman’s club to find somewhere for her to pay off her side of the deal and…that’s when everything got dark and fuzzy in her memory.

He had been a nice guy, a normal guy, not one of those animals in a man’s skin that they had out working the pipeline. He’d been a local, a townie, a normal guy. What the hell could have gone so wrong with Bashful that she’d ended up out here next to a river she’d never even known existed?

She wasn’t getting any younger, and she wasn’t getting any safer. The longer she was out here, the worse the odds of her making it. For all she knew wolves were already on her scent. She needed to get back to town, fast.

Besides, what was life without taking a few risks? She opened her eyes. At first, it was just a quick flicker before she shut them again quick. The encroaching snow stung at them. The light made fireworks go off inside her head and made her taste blood all over again. Made her want to puke up her guts and curl in a ball and just let the wolves have her. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t give up, not now, not ever. All her life had been hardship, and she had struggled through it. Every day from now to the grave was going to be a hardship, and she’d go on struggling through it. Because that was what surviving was, looking at all the stuff that wanted you to stop and keeping on going all the same.

Bracing herself for the pain, she opened her eyes again, and forced them to stay open, even as she made the agonising roll away from the snowbank that her face had been propped up on. The land was a black and white negative of trees and snow. Flashing by so quickly that it made her stomach turn over.

There was another ache now. One down between her legs. All the rest might have been new and scary, but that was an old one. One she’d known since she was old enough to bleed. Someone had been with her last night, inside her last night, while she was unconscious. It might have been before the lights went out and she’d lost the memory, but judging by the weight of the ache and the bruises she could feel on her thighs now that she concentrated, it had been after. When she’d been too insensible to stop him, too powerless to push him off when he jackhammered her too hard and left her in agony. It had simmered down now that she’d stopped moving, just a white-hot coal trapped between the crux of her thighs instead of anything blazing brighter. But it would be back. She’d been here enough times to know, it would be back, and it would be worse. Her stomach turning over, and recriminations bleeding through her thoughts, blaming herself for being a victim again, for being so stupid as to trust a man just because he didn’t look like a monster. She had known since she was a little girl that the monsters were real, and they looked just like everybody else, why had she gone on trying to convince herself otherwise all these years?

Now wasn’t the time to get lost in her own thoughts. Now wasn’t the time to feel sorry for herself. She had to get up. She had to move. It might have been mid-morning now, but the sun set fast up here in the north. If she had too far to go back to town, she might not make it, and she did not want to spend another night out in these woods. Only luck could have kept her alive this long, and she’d known with blood slick down her thighs just how good her luck was in the long run.

She could see her breath. Looking down, she could see her skirt had been hiked right up sometime through the night, leaving the pale tops of her thighs exposed, and what she’d been wearing underneath was long gone, but the cold was almost a relief compared to the burning, so she was in no hurry to fix it. Up top, she was dressed like she was going to a bar, not the winter woods. Something light and strappy, meant to show off the goods, not stop the goods from frosting over. Whichever way the town was, she needed to get there fast. She was probably already sick after god knows how long lying in the snow before she came back to consciousness, but another few hours at these temperatures and she was going to start shutting down. Forget staying out here another night, if the sun went down she was going to stop, drop, and frost up. A corpse, pre-frozen for the morgue.

Pushing herself up onto her elbows didn’t work so great, there still didn’t seem to be any strength in her limbs. She didn’t know whether that was because of the head injury that she assumed was responsible for the unconsciousness, the taste of blood, the lost time, and all the rest, or if it was due to the amount of time she had been left lying out in the bitter cold. Either way, she found her arms were not of much use in helping her up. Setting the heel of her boot into the ground, she pushed. It drove her up against the snowbank, but the penalty for that slight movement of her lower half was a new searing pain that shot from her crotch all the way up to her diaphragm. Despite the agonizing pain, she set her other foot down and pushed, driving herself upward against the solid edge of the snowbank.

It took longer than she would have liked to admit to get herself into a sitting position. It scared her how much effort it had taken, how much energy it had cost. It made her wonder if she could make it back to civilization, even if she did know the way. How bad had she been hit?

She touched her hand tentatively to her nose, then to her ears. It came away without blood, but that might have just been because it was frozen, not because it wasn’t there. With the same cautious probing fingers, she reached up to touch her scalp. Sharp pain immediately shot across it. She wasn’t even close to the central point of impact where the pain was flaring like somebody had dropped a nuke on her skull, but just touching anywhere on her head was enough to make her guts churn.

There was nothing like a good head injury to make your day interesting.

Her neck ached too, of course, the way that necks always do when you hurt your head bad enough. It felt like the pain was radiating down her neck to her shoulders, pulling the muscles tighter and tighter. Normally she’d put her head back, rest it on the snow, take the weight off her neck, but she knew if her head touched anything right now, she would probably start screaming and never stop.

“Alright… Just sit for a minute.” She breathed it in, the sharp harsh winter waking her up, making her lungs ache. “Work out the way to town. Go.”

Her words sounded thick in her mouth, slurred. Maybe the last remnants of sleep clinging to her tongue, maybe the head wound was even worse than it felt. Maybe it was one of those, life-is-never-the-same kind of head wounds that you heard about sometimes from the loggers. When a guy comes back to town having left who he really was somewhere out in the woods, never to be seen again.

There was no landmark that she recognised out here in the woods, no hint which way town might be. If only she’d stuck it out with Girl Guides, maybe she’d know which way to go. Wasn’t there something about moss growing on only one side of a tree? Something about always turning right? Was it “when you’re lost always walk downhill?” She couldn’t remember. Smoking and boys and disco music had always sounded much more appealing than learning to tie knots.

She was still alive, though. That was the important thing. All the other stuff could come later. As long as she was still alive, she could get herself out of this. It didn’t matter if it was going to be hard, or if she was going to have to struggle and hurt. She would make it, and she would survive. Same as she always had.

All she had to do was think. That’s all. Just think. It didn’t matter if her head hurt. It didn’t matter if the white snow and black-striped shadows of the trees kept blending together into a grey blur before sharpening up again. All that mattered was that she was still here, and she could get herself out of this like she had a million other times with a million other problems. She was a survivor.

“River… river’s over there.” She dragged her head around towards the source of the distant sound mumbling to herself. “Follow… the river… to the sea. That’s… that’s how you do it, right?”

Anchorage was on the sea, in the Cook Inlet, reaching out a sleepy hand towards Fire Island. If she found a river, it would lead her to something. Even if she couldn’t find town, she didn’t think there was a single river anywhere near the town that didn’t have one fisherman or another out on their boat all day chasing down sockeye salmon. Some of them even had cabins out here. Them and the hunters were serious about it. Maybe she didn’t even need to find the town, just one of those cabins. Someplace to get warmed up, get herself together. Someplace she could wait for help to come. She wanted to see a doctor about her head as soon as she could, but if it came to it, she wasn’t above hunkering down until help arrived. She wasn’t proud. Whatever it took to survive, right?

Drawing in ragged breaths, she shifted until her palms were pressing down into the bitter-sharp snow. One big push, then she’d be up to her feet. There were trees all around, if she felt dizzy, she could just grab onto one of them.

All it would take was one big push. Just… push. Her hands shook, vibrations running up to her elbows as she strained, she tried to get her feet beneath her, but they slipped away in the powdery snow. Growling with frustration, she twisted around, tucking up her knees, getting them underneath her and getting up that way.

Then she heard motion.

All this time as she’d struggled and wriggled and wrestled her way to sitting upright, he’d just been watching her, completely silent, completely still. Not like a person sitting still, but like a rock, a bit of furniture, something so immobile that you don’t even notice it until you stub your toe. He might have been one of the trees for all that she’d noticed him.

He’d stayed all but invisible until now, impossible to perceive because of his incredible stillness. She couldn’t believe that in the forest silence, she hadn’t even heard his breath. Hadn’t seen a puff of it drifting by. It was like he was a dead man.

The noise she’d heard, she had no doubt she’d only heard because he wanted her to hear it. The tell-tale click-clack of a rifle loading.

He stood before her now, looking all too normal for such a strange place in his big jacket, his fur hat, rifle strap dangling all casual-like off the rifle he held in his hands. Not pointed at her, just there. She didn’t recognise him at first. His was just one of those faces that you saw around town sometimes. Blending into the background. He’d always been there, and he always would be, and she’d never give him a second glance. Nobody would. But here he was, standing out for the first time. Standing out in the middle of the silent forest with a gun in his hand. Her only hope of survival.

Relief should have hit then. Relief that she wasn’t alone in this bleak winter wonderland. Relief that there was somebody out there who could take her home. Who could keep her safe.

Relief didn’t come. Nothing about this guy felt safe. Not here, outside the context of town. Not after that shit he’d just pulled, pretending he wasn’t there when she was obviously in desperate need of help. She looked up at his face now, shadowed by his hat, features blurring and swirling as her eyes slipped in and out of focus. She couldn’t make him out, not completely, not yet. She reached out a hand to him, not so subtly begging for help to stand, but he remained completely immobile and implacable, like a glacier.

With a strength that she didn’t know she had in her, she got her feet tucked under herself and pushed her way up to standing. The whole world spun around, twirling and swirling like when she was a kid on a carousel back down south. Back when she could convince herself that there was somebody that loved her and her days weren’t filled with this awful biting cold. Warmth. God, she missed warmth.

When the world stopped turning and her eyes were able to focus, she looked at him again, searching for any hint of mercy or humanity in his features.

It had taken her this long to recognise him, not because of blurry eyes or deep shadows or the hat, but because without any light behind his eyes, he looked like a completely different person. There was no expression on his face, no sympathy, no lust, nothing she could work with at all. He was a solid stone wall that she’d never be able to break through or climb over. But she knew him. Slowly, like he had all the time in the world, he lifted his hand from his rifle and pointed past her.

“That’s the Knik River.” Bashful told her, no longer bashful, no longer anything at all but pure cold stitched into human skin. “We’re northeast of town a few miles. You want to be heading away from it, not towards it if you’re going to get back there before sunset.”

She’d never been this far out before, but the Knik, that was easy enough to fit into the map in her head. There were two arms of the Cook Inlet giving Anchorage a big hug, one of them was the Knik Arm, fed into by the Knik River, she guessed. How far up did the arm become the river? How far out had he taken her?

It now felt obvious to her that he didn’t mean for her to walk away from this alive. You don’t take a whore out into the middle of the unexplored wilderness so you can have a nice quiet chat with them, and you don’t take them out so that they can perform for you. There was no good reason to be isolated from everyone and everything unless he meant to hurt her. To kill her. She knew that with a certainty that shocked her. Not because she lacked an imagination of all the other reasons a man might want this sort of privacy, or because she hadn’t experienced some of the weird and wild things that men liked, but because of him. Bashful wasn’t human. Not anymore. The mask of humanity had slipped away from him along with his stutter. Every word he spoke came out as crisp and clear as the winter air.

She had so many questions tickling at her throat. What are you? Why are you like this? Why are you doing this to me? What’s the point of bringing me out here? Why? Why? Why?

She settled on the practical question that might help. “Why are you telling me this?”

There was a movement then, the tiniest hint of a nod. Like she was an animal that had been taught to do a trick and had performed it to her master’s satisfaction. No point smiling at a dog or giving it a round of applause, it wouldn’t understand anyway, but all the same, she felt like she’d done something right. Like she’d won a point in whatever game he was playing by asking the right thing at the right time.

His hand moved back to the rifle, but otherwise, she could have sworn not a single hair on his head had budged, it was like he was a still picture pasted into a movie. It was beyond uncanny. And it was making her nervous in a way she couldn’t quite describe. She supposed this was how a mouse felt when a cat was watching it, but it wasn’t able to see the cat that was about to hurt it.

“It makes things fair. If you get away but you go the wrong way, you’d die out there all the same. Now, if you make it. You’re free.”

From the moment she’d seen him, she had her suspicions about how this was going to go. She’d expected threats, a demand for a performance, maybe a few minutes that she’d prefer not to remember later which bourbon might help with, but not this. What was the point? He already had her. He had her so completely in his power that she didn’t even pretend that any part of her life was still hers. To survive when somebody had you like that, you had to submit. It might have gone against her every instinct to simply roll over and let some man tell her what she had to do, but it was how you survived. The only sure way to survive an encounter like this. Say what they wanted you to say, do what they wanted you to do, then go away somewhere inside your mind so that it was happening to somebody else. That was how you survived it. That was how you came out the other side still whole.

What he was saying made no sense. If he’d wanted her dead, she would already be dead. He had had plenty of opportunity. He’d clearly taken advantage of some of those opportunities. Her crotch wouldn’t feel like somebody had jammed a hot poker in it otherwise. But when he had the opportunity to kill her in her sleep while she was completely defenceless and to eliminate any possibility of her saying anything to anyone, he had chosen to wait and allow her to wake up. It made no sense for him to kill her now. Hurt her, maybe, rape her again, probably, but kill her? It just didn’t make sense. “What do you mean, if I make it?”

There was no nod this time. No ‘good girl’ and a pat on the head. He wasn’t pleased by that question. He looked at her like she’d failed to sit on command. Then, as if he was explaining one and one making two to a toddler, he explained everything, everything that would define what the rest of her life was going to be. Everything that he was. Everything. It took only three little words, and she couldn’t quite comprehend them.

“I’m a hunter.”

She stared at him. He was dressed like he was going out hunting in the woods, just like nearly every man in Anchorage dressed to go out and try to bag an elk to fill their freezer for the winter. It was obvious that he was a hunter. They were all hunters up here. They had to be, with food costing what it did to ship up from the lower forty-eight. If they didn’t hunt, there just wouldn’t be enough food to go around. Fortunately, the great big Alaskan wilderness offered more food hoofing about than everyone in town could consume in a hundred lifetimes.

But that wasn’t what he was saying. She wanted to pretend it was what he was saying. Pretend it wasn’t real. That none of this was real. That it was all just some misunderstanding that they could both walk away from intact. She didn’t want to believe that he could mean that he wanted… She didn’t want to believe that anyone could want that. That anyone could be so sick and twisted that they could look at another person and consider them to be prey. “You can’t be serious.”

His face told her everything else that she needed to know. Everything that the three words had meant.

This wasn’t a joke, this wasn’t a misunderstanding, this was real. She was a survivor, and you didn’t survive by pretending the world wasn’t the way it was. That men weren’t the way that they were, even though it might sicken you to know the truth of it.

She’d known men before where the sex came second to the pain. Men who’d wanted her pain more than anything else in the world, no matter what it cost them. Nor did it matter what it cost her to go along with it, to act like it was all for fun when she knew that she’d be the one covered in bruises, bleeding and sobbing, curled up on the floor of her shower, praying that when she looked in the mirror there wouldn’t be anything for anyone else to see. For anyone else to judge.

“Ten.”

His voice startled her into motion. She took one staggering step away, primal instinct screaming at her to run, but she had to try and get out of this. The dude was holding a hunting rifle like he knew how to use it, and forest or not, she didn’t like her chances.

“You’re kidding me.” She gave voice to her confusion, even though she knew she shouldn’t, and it earned her another blank expression. Disapproving. Playing the game wrong.

He hadn’t moved a muscle. Hadn’t brought the gun up to take aim. Hadn’t even changed his expression. He was completely still, but it was different now. Not like a rock, more like a tiger, coiled and ready to pounce. Now when he spoke to her, his eyes weren’t staring off into the woods as if he was pretending that he was the only person out here. They were locked onto her. Tracking her movement. Calculations about wind speed and direction ticking away behind the expression that gave nothing away, not even his excitement.

“Nine.”

She did the unthinkable, she found the courage to step forward, even as her body screamed at her to run and keep on running. To hide and cower. To do anything, anything, so that she wasn’t here. Wasn’t facing what she now knew with an awful certainty was coming. “Come on man, I won’t say nothing to nobody, just take me home. We can forget all about…”

He cut her off. “Eight.”

There was no reasoning with him. No logic that might dissuade him. No humanity to appeal to. She might as well have been talking to one of the bears or the wolves she knew were out here. At least they might have reacted, might have cocked their head to the side and acknowledged that there was a sound being made. This guy didn’t even give her that. He just watched her like she was some germ under a microscope, and he waited.

“Seven.”

She took off running. There was nothing else left to do. No hope of getting out of this alive, except for doing exactly what he wanted. Probably not even then. She didn’t know how far up north the Knik River was. Didn’t know how many miles of wilderness lay between her and the promised freedom. She had never bothered to learn, never planning to come out here, unless somebody paid the overnight rate to keep their hunting cabin warm for them, and even then, she’d have thought twice about it. It was too dangerous, too isolated, anything could happen out here and nobody would ever find out about it.

Anything was happening out here, and nobody would ever find out about it. Would they even find her body? Would there be a funeral? Would anyone even notice that she had gone missing, or would they just think that she’d moved along like so many other women did when they got tired of the cold and the dark and the rough hands of working men who didn’t know how to treat a girl right?

“Six.”

She could still hear him, counting down, she hadn’t made it far enough between “seven” and “six” to be out of hearing range which meant that as she scrambled through the fallen branches and undergrowth, he could hear her too. Even if she managed to get out of sight, even if she managed to duck down some gully or hide behind a copse of trees thick enough to keep her hidden, he’d still be able to track her by sound.

“Five.”

His voice was distant now. Further off than she could have hoped that it might be. Maybe by the next number, she wouldn’t hear him at all. He’d given her too much of a head start. She was going to make it. Those ten counts would get her so far away that he’d never have a chance of catching her all the way out here. There was so much empty country to cover. She broke right, sprinting off at an angle to the direction of town, she could right her heading later, but right now she needed to focus on losing him. Once she knew she was safe, she’d be able to hike back to town at her leisure. Well, not at her leisure, because she’d still be slowly succumbing to hypothermia and frostbite and all the other terrible stuff that happened to you if you went roaming around in your bar clothes in the middle of the forest in the middle of Alaskan winter.

“Four.”

She couldn’t hear him saying it, but she could hear his voice, cold and clipped, in her head. If she made it out of this alive, she was willing to bet that she’d be hearing a lot of that voice. Every time she laid down to try and get some sleep, she’d hear him counting down to her death. Every moment that she thought she was at peace, he’d be there.

“Three.”

She slipped as she was heading down an embankment, in such a rush that her legs just went on windmilling as she fell. The impact knocked the wind out of her lungs and sent the pain in her head, pain that she’d almost forgotten about, back into overdrive. She had to bite back a scream or risk giving away her location. She would have lost everything because of a stupid slip and fall. She could taste blood in her mouth again. She’d bitten her lip to stop herself from crying out. And now she had to get up again, the whole awful arduous experience of pulling herself to her feet played out at double speed, the pain, the nausea and the encroaching darkness all coming in quick succession. She was not going to die out here. She was a survivor. She got up. She turned to glance back the way she’d come, a luxury she hadn’t dared allow herself before, as she ran for her life.

“Two.”

Stretching out behind her, up the slope and off through the woods were footprints. More than footprints, a whole path that she’d cleared through the snow in her frantic sprint. This guy was a hunter, and she had just left him the clearest trail to follow that she could think of. She had to do something. Didn’t they say something about wiping your tracks away with a fallen branch or walking backwards to confuse your tracks or… she couldn’t remember any of this shit. School was a distant memory, and the only thing that she’d learned since then was just how low she was willing to sink. She’d never even considered that she might someday need to remember any of this stuff.

“One.”

Screw it. The damage was done, she still had her few seconds of advantage, and she was going to use every moment left to her. It didn’t matter if he could track her, if she just ran fast enough for long enough, he’d never be able to catch up. Her lungs were burning. Years of twenty a day fighting back against the sudden exertions. They said smoking would kill her, but not like this. Never like this.

“Zero.”

Her time was up. She turned south and ran. Faster than he could follow. Faster than a bullet. She made it almost a mile.

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